Hiking the JMT: July 16-Aug 5, 1997

Susan Handy and Matt Richter

The John Muir Trail is one of the classic trails in the U.S. Stretching 240 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, it passes through some of the most stunning country in the High Sierra and crosses no roads along the way. It had long been a dream of ours, and after four years in Texas, we were homesick for the rugged granite and clear lakes of the Sierras. We figured we'd better do it while we still had the flexibility - work-wise and body-wise.

Our trip did not follow the John Muir Trail (JMT) exactly. We decided to skip both the Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney ends of the trip, having hiked in these areas before and because of the crowds usually found there. We also decided to do the trip from south to north, the opposite direction of most JMT hikers (we're not sure why, exactly, except that it seemed more natural to us). The result was a 200 mile trip from Cottonwood Pass, just south of Mount Whitney, to Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. We planned on 21 days, or about 10 miles a day.

Preparing for the trip was more work than we expected. First, we had to figure out how to get to the trailhead but have our car waiting for us at the end. Second, we had to figure out how to get resupplied along the way, since we didn't want to have to carry more than 10 days worth of food at a time. The solution was to drive to Bishop, on the east side of the Sierras, where we hired the shuttle service to take us to the trailhead (at a cost of $1/mile), leaving our car at the motel in Bishop. Our resuppliers, my brother Todd and my sister's boyfriend Jon, hiked in from South Lake over Bishop Pass on Day 9 to resupply us, then picked up our car on their drive back to the Bay Area and dropped it off for us in Tuolomne - a pretty nifty solution. Our second resupply was on day 17, when we met Matt's brother Mike and his family at Devil's Postpile National Monument; Mike and his son Daniel then joined us for the last few days of the trip.

The other preparations involved gear and food. Todd had done the JMT two summers before and recommended several items: a comfortable pack, waterproof boots, ski poles, mosquito netting for our hats, and chair frames for our sleeping pads. We took his advice on all accounts and were extremely happy we did. After shopping around, we splurged on Dana Design packs, widely considered the most comfortable available; they certainly did the job. Waterproof boots were essential both for numerous stream crossings and all the rain that we ended up getting. The ski poles helped with stream crossings, snow fields, and saving our knees on the downhills. The mosquito nets - well, suffice it to say that we could have sold them many times over on the trip; maybe the best $2 we have ever spent. The chair frames were the most optional but felt pretty darn good at the end of a long day of hiking. Another important item was a bear-proof food cannister, large enough to hold three or four days worth of food and important for our peace of mind.

For food we made a few changes to our usual menu. Breakfasts were cold, to help save on gas for the stove: mueselli or granola with powdered milk. We decided we liked this better than the standard oatmeal. For lunch, we had bagels or german-style rye bread with cheese (mozarella or parmesean) or instant humus, a new discovery for us. Snacks included trail mix, dried fruit (try the mango!), chocolate, and corn nuts. Dinners consisted of various mixes of dehydrated foods bought mostly in bulk from Whole Foods. Our favorites included couscous with lentil soup, black beans with minute rice, and vegetarian chilli with mash potatoes. Much cheaper than buying backpacking food and just as tasty, especially with some extra spices, a little bit of olive oil, and some cheese when we could spare it. Hot chocolate or spice tea (a mix of Tang, instant tea, sugar, and spices - very tasty) for dessert. An important lesson we learned early: 1/2 cup of dried couscous per person is plenty! The toughest part of food planning was making sure we had enough, but not too much, and putting our resupply packages together - a solid day's work.

We started the trip on July 16, somewhat early for the JMT. It had been a big snow year for the Sierras but fortunately for us the snow melted early. We couldn't have started much later, given our teaching schedules, and we anxiously monitored the snow levels all spring. The shuttle service (a one-woman operation, run by Candy Williams, sister-in-law of former SF Giant Matt Williams) dropped us off at the trailhead mid-morning and we were on our way. The advantage of starting at Cottonwood Pass was that we could drive to 10,000 feet and then had only an 11,000 foot pass to get over ; at Mount Whitney, the trailhead is at 8,000 feet and the pass is over 13,000 feet. Still, we spent most of the first day battling the altitude. Next time we'll be sure to plan to spend a night or two at altitude before starting the trip. Our camp the first night , at 11,200 feet one of the highest of the trip, was just above Rock Creek and just below Mount Langley, one of the 12 "fourteeners" in the Sierras.

Day 2 took us down Rock Creek , up past Mount Guyot, and down into Crabtree Meadow. We saw only three people this day, the lowest tally of the trip. Surprisingly, passing people along the way, stopping and talking with them about the trail and their experiences, was one of the more enjoyable parts of the trip, although we preferred the days when we saw fewer than 10 or so people. We had the campsite at Crabtree Meadow all to ourselves. From our sleeping bags, we looked up to Mount Whitney and surrounding peaks (acutally, it took us awhile to be sure just which peak was Mount Whitney). Although we were still feeling the altitude, we were in much better shape than the previous day. This night was one of the worst for mosquitoes. We didn't have a real tent (more on this below), but we had a sheet of netting that we could drape over our heads to keep mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately, the night was warm enough that the bugs stayed active all night, and we had to choose between being eaten alive (sleeping bags unzipped) or cooked alive (sleeping bags zipped).

On Day 3 we were actually on the John Muir Trail for the first time. This stretch parallels the Kern River Canyon and offers dramatic views of the Great Western Divide across the Canyon . We had lunch at a stunning tarn - a small, high, alpine lake - perched at the rim of the canyon, with views back to Mount Whitney and across to the Kaweah peaks. We camped at the last clump of trees above Tyndall Creek and below Forester Pass, in a sloping meadow teeming with wildlife (at least by Sierra standards). No bears, but plenty of deer (including bucks) and marmots.

The next day was one of our best. The approach to Forester Pass, elevation 13,180, was suitably desolate: just rocks, snow, and icy tarns. If we hadn't known that the trail somehow climbed out of the bowl, we would have thought we had reached a dead end. The trail here consists of an impressive series of ledges carved into and built onto the cliff. Towards the top the trail crosses a steep, narrow scree chute and creates a ledge which catches snow. By the time we reached this snow patch only about half of it was in the sun, leaving about six steps or so of solid ice. This was the scariest part of the entire trip and the only spot where we needed our ice axes, although we weren't sensible enough to actually use them. Despite our poor judgement, we made it safely across and up to the pass, where we were treated to dramatic views to the south and north. The pass was thick with skypilot, a fragrant wildflower that grows only in the rocky areas above 12,000 feet or so where it's hard to believe anything can grow. The day was warm and cloudless, and we spent a long time enjoying the views and picking out the peaks 50 miles further up the trail. From there, we dropped down across snow fields made tedious by the deep sun cups (some as deep as three or more feet), passed more stunning tarns and into the Bubbs Creek canyon.

Day 5 started with an early morning view of East Vidette took us over Glen Pass (12,000) and into Rae Lakes Basin, a popular destination for backpackers in Kings Canyon National Park and rightly so - a series of three or four crystal clear lakes surrounded by jagged granite peaks . We had planned to camp at the lowest of the lakes, but the mosquitos were so thick that we moved on, dropping down to Woods Crossing (8,550), where we had spent a night on a trip to Kings Canyon the previous May. This was our longest day so far, about 13 miles with a climb of 4,000 feet or so, and we were tired. To make matters worse, we were hit by a late afternoon thunderstorm, which lasted long enough that we set up our tent but not so long that it kept the mosquitos away. Here we met a solo hiker from England who has "walked" all over the world, though the JMT was his first trip in the U.S. One of our more social evenings.

The thunderstorm from the previous day was a sign of things to come. On Day 6 we headed up Woods Creek towards Pinchot Pass (12,100). By the time we reached the base of the pass at lunchtime, the sky had almost completely clouded over, leaving a patch of blue only over the pass itself. We decided to try for the pass before the storm hit and managed to move faster than we would have thought possible, especially after hearing that first clap of thunder. By the time we got to the pass, we were drenched with sweat and completely exhausted. Fortunately, we only ever heard two or three claps of thunder and only ever felt a few drops of rain. The clouds broke up in time for a beautiful sunset from our campsite at Lake Marjorie .

Red at night, sailor's delight, right? Wrong. The next morning we woke to clouds and drizzle. By the time we reached the Upper Basin, one of the widest glacial basins in the Sierras, the drizzle had turned into a steady rain. We geared up (gortex jackets and pants over poly-pro underwear) and headed up to Mather Pass (12,200), thinking that if we stopped short that day we might run into rain the next day anyway and then would have trouble meeting our resuppliers on Day 9. By the time we reached the pass, we were soaked but mostly still warm. With the clouds, we missed out on views of the Palisades, another ridge of fourteeners. Heading down the pass across the snowfields we passed a French couple heading up to the pass, reassuring us that we weren't the only crazy ones that day. By the time we reached Upper Palisades Lake we were cold and tired and ready to find a campsite, which was harder than we expected because the trail was well above the lake. After some searching, we found a nice one with views both back towards the pass and down the lake canyon.

We had planned to have a layover day at Palisades Lakes. We hadn't planned on spending our layover day stuck in the tent, but that's how it worked out. We should point out here that we hadn't actually brought our tent, rather just one of those cheap plastic tube tents you might have used as a kid. The Sierras are usually very dry, and we like sleeping out under the stars. We rigged a pretty nifty shelter, though, using the tube tent, the tarp (one of those 6' by 8' space blankets) and our ski poles, that managed to keep us dry. That morning we had a couple of hours of sun which was enough to dry out our soggy clothes from the day before. The rest of the day we read and rested in the tent and decided it wasn't so bad to have an excuse to be potatoes for a day. Although we mostly couldn't see the peaks, we enjoyed watching the clouds roll in and swirl around, and the few moments of sunshine were glorious. Our occasional glimpses of the peaks showed fresh snow up near the top.

The next day we woke to bright blue sky and gave a sigh of relief. Day 9 was our resupply day, which meant we had to reach the junction with the Bishop Pass trail by dinner. We realized for the first time that we didn't have a back-up plan - what if we reached the junction and Todd and Jon weren't there? We got a late start, after waiting for everything to dry out, but figured that they had a longer, tougher hike than we did. We took our time hiking past the Upper and Lower Palisades Lakes, some of the prettiest of the whole trip, and down the "Golden Staircase," a steep, rocky drop, towards Le Conte Canyon. We passed lots of people this day and shared lots of stories and complaints about the rainy weather and gave many thanks for the sunshine; one group said they had almost aborted their trip and hiked out at Bishop Pass. When we reached the rendevous point late that afternoon, Todd and Jon had already been there for a couple of hours (so they got to worry about the lack of backup plan instead of us), and Jon was preparing my Christmas present - a dinner of my choice at the location of my choice along the JMT. What a feast! Fresh fettucine with sauteed mushrooms and homemade pesto, served with homemade bread, cheese, fresh fruit, and Sees Candy for dessert. It was fun to have company, too. We shared stories with Todd, who had just finished a climb of the Northface of Half Dome in Yosemite.

The next morning, we were up early so Todd and Jon could get on the trail and get home by a decent hour. We were sad to see them go, sad to get to our half-way point, and sluggish from all that rich food. But upper Le Conte Canyon was one of our favorite parts of the trip, water pouring in from all around, feeding an icy stream that tumbles down the canyon and meanders through the meadows. As we approached Muir Pass (11,955), much of the trail was either under water or under snow. The pass itself had limited views to the south but dramatic views across a desolate wasteland to the north. The Muir Hut at the top of the pass was built in the 1930s completely out of rock, including the roof, and provides shelter for passing hikers. We stopped long enough for a picture, then headed down towards Evolution Lake, once again trying to out-hike the rapidly-developing storm. We were rewarded with one of our most beautiful campsites and only a bit of rain.

Day 11 was all downhill, from Evolution Lake down through Evolution Valley and its wide meadows, down another step to the south fork of the San Joaquin River. We found a well-developed campsite on the river and enjoyed a quick dip (at least Matt did) before our evening chores. The clouds built up again and we heard thunder over the distant peaks but never got rain down in the canyon. We were dreading the climb out of the canyon the next morning, after Todd's description of a long, hot, manzanita-covered hillside, but with an early start it wasn't bad and we were well-rewarded at the top. From Seldon Pass (10,900) we looked back south selden1 over beautiful hanging lakes and north towards desolate peaks and the day's approaching storm. We camped just below the pass at Marie Lake and managed to get our tent set up before being hit by wind, rain, sleet, and hail. It was touch and go for awhile, but our trusty tent survived the storm, which passed in less than an hour and left behind a clear, fresh evening.

The next morning clouded over before we'd even left camp. As we dropped into Bear Creek Canyon, the drizzle turned to rain. We finally gave in and put on our rain gear, just as the rain turned back to drizzle. Fortunately, the day was warm and we were happy to have the cooling moisture as we climbed up Bear Ridge then down a couple of miles of switchbacks on the steep north side of the ridge. We found a beautiful campsite on the banks of Mono Creek, with our own private waterfall and two giant trees, a cedar and a ponderosa pine, to tie our tent between. At this point along the trail most hikers catch a boat across Lake Edison to Vermillion Resort, where they can pick up food, take a shower, and buy a hot meal - this all seemed a little too civilized for us, though we were tempted after all the rain.

Day 14 started out clear, but it wasn't long before we saw the first "puffy" - the tiniest cloud can quickly multiple and divide and evolve into a full-fledged storm. We found that if the sky was less than half-blue by lunch time, we were due for rain or at least thunder. Still, this morning we were hopeful that the string of rainy days would end. The scenery on the way up to Silver Pass (10,700) was a pleasant surprise - a pocket meadow, a sliding waterfall, a steep canyon. From the pass we could see familiar territory to the north - Banner and Ritter peaks at the edge of Yosemite National Park, near the end of our trip. True to form, the cloud cover thickened and threatened, hastening us down from the pass. The storm hit before we could find a campsite: rain, wind, sleet, and hail once again. The trail became a river, and we alternated between hiking to stay warm and huddling under trees to stay dry. At last the rain let up and we found a functional site. To add insult to injury, though, the mosquitos were thick and the rain started up again just as we headed for bed.

The plan was to meet Mike and his family at Devil's Postpile "mid-morning" on Day 17, so on Day 16 we hiked as close to Devil's Postpile as we could get without actually getting there and still have a water supply. We headed out early, to make sure we got to the rendevous spot first this time. This was as close to civilization as we got on the trip. Before long we began to see day hikers and just plain old visitors walking out to see Devil's Postpile. We were terribly grubby at this point and weren't sure how people saw us. How we saw them was, well, rather snobbish of us, after all our time surviving in the backcountry. We got to the ranger's station and had time as we waited to take advantage of the bathroom (a toilet! a sink! a mirror!) and the phone (I'm safe, Mom! I'm safe, Dad!). Mike and Maria and the kids showed up almost on schedule, and we had fun telling them all about our trip as we organized the food supplies and gear. Mike, age 42, had never been backpacking. Daniel, age 14, had done two and three night trips. Neither of them had hiked much at altitude. From where we met them, we had an eight mile trip, all up hill, to our next campsite. A daunting task, but Mike and Daniel did well, and Mike bubbled with enthusiasm for the scenery and the experience. We camped that night at Gladys Lake, which sits on the rim of the San Joaquin canyon and which we had entirely to ourselves and which was actually almost warm and definitely warm enough for a late-afternoon swim. Maria had provided our special treat for dinner, marinated chicken breasts - tasty and satisfying after 16 days of dehydrated food but a bit of work to clean up. We were more worried than ever about bears, given the strong smell of dinner and our proximity to an area we know bears frequent. We found the perfect branch for hanging our food and had our rock piles ready for scaring any bears away but had no visitors in the night, at least that we knew about.

Much of the next day's hike was over trail that we had hiked in the other direction in 1993 and that passed some of our favorite lakes. Unfortunately, it was a down, up, down, up, down, up kind of day - exhausting by the end. We had a long, relaxing lunch midway at Garnet Lake, a blue so deep it looks unnatural, tucked under mountains so monumental they look unreal. It was with great reluctance that we moved on, though it helped knowing that more spectacular scenery was to come. Our plan had been to camp at Thousand Island Lake, but we ran into a ranger there who suggested we'd find fewer people and fewer bears if we went on to the pass and looked for a campsite at the tarns there. Although we felt ready to stop, we pressed on for what seemed like much more than the 1.5 miles we were expecting. The views from the pass of Mount Ritter were stunning and we had the pass to ourselves, so while we felt a bit guilty for camping in a relatively unused site we were glad that we'd taken the ranger's advice.

On Day 19 our goal was to get over Donahue Pass and into Lyell Canyon in Yosemite Park. All along the trail we'd heard that the bears were active in Lyell Canyon, but with little food to lose by then, we were more excited than nervous about the prospect. The morning was relatively cloudy, and we got a few drops of rain at lunch time. Here we go again, we thought. But for the first time, the clouds broke up as the afternoon went on. We met some interesting people this day - and some real idiots. First we passed a couple of guys who were running from Tuolomne Meadows to Agnew Meadows in one day - a distance of 35 miles with a climb of 2400 feet along the way. Then we met a group of four guys - carrying only day packs and water bottles - who were trying to do the entire JMT in a week, i.e. 35 miles a day or so for the entire 240 miles of the trail. It was hard not to feel like slackers by comparison, though we were quite happy with our pace. The idiots came later, and are worthy of a paragraph of their own.

We found a beautiful campsite two ledges below the pass, at the head of the Tuolomne River and below Mount Lyell. The first idiots we saw were a group of people camping on the meadow grass. In general, you don't want to squash plants with a tent. At this altitude (just at treeline) and in a high-use area like this, the rules of low impact camping are even more important. After dinner, a guy hiked through our campsite - he'd come cross-country down the cliff behind our camp and claimed to have climbed Mount Lyell that day, without any sort of snow or glacier gear (we were skeptical). He asked if we'd seen the two women he was with come down the trail before him, but we hadn't. Just as we were heading to bed, though, we heard shouts - "Barry, Barry" - from the two women looking for their companion. At this point, it was just about dark and they were climbing down the same cliff he had, destined for their campsite six miles farther down the canyon. When they reached us, they seemed oblivious to the potential danger of the situation they were in - they had no lights, no warm clothing, the night was cool and dark, and they still had six miles to hike. Mike lent them his headlamp, not knowing if he'd ever see it again. But they left it at the ranger station in Tuolomne Meadows as arranged and expressed sufficient gratitude for his thoughtfulness. Still, it's people like this we'd rather not see in the backcountry (backpacking snobs that we've become).

Sometime in the middle of the night we heard a loud scratching noise that, despite our grogginess, we immediately knew was a bear climbing the tree in which we'd hung our food - actually, it was more garbage than food at that point. We rushed over towards the tree, carrying our rocks and shining our flashlights, and caught just a blur of a bear as he scampered down the tree and out of the range of our flashlights. Our adrenalin kept us up for awhile, and we watched the midnight stars as we waited for the bear to come back. Apparently he never did, for our food bags were still hanging in the tree when we woke up. We had fun looking for evidence of the bear - no tracks, but claw marks on the tree, a couple of broken branches, and some cinamon-colored fur snagged on the bark.

At that point we were within 12 miles of our car. Rather than hike out in one day, we decided to stick to our original plan to reach the car by noon on the next day. That meant that we had a morning to relax or explore; Mike and Susan took advantage of the former, Matt and Daniel the latter. Matt and Daniel climbed up close to Mount Lyell and found a lake still almost entirely iced over; Mike and Susan sat and read and fought off the pick-a-pins (intrepid little ground squirrels). We had lunch at the campsite before heading down the canyon. On the way out, we met more idiots, this time in the form of a boyscout aiming his slingshot at a marmot while his father looked on. We met the scoutmaster farther down the trail who promised strong disciplinary measures; he was just what you'd expect a scoutmaster to be. We found our last campsite about halfway down the canyon, at a beautiful fall along the Tuolomne River.

This time, just as we were heading to bed, we heard the scratching sound again and caught a bear and her cubs going for our garbage bags. We could see the mother scamper down the tree and away from the campsite, but we could still see her eyes shine from our flashlights, so we knew she hadn't gone away. After a bit we started to hear a barking sound that we took to be her cubs but thought was coming from somewhere behind her. After a long stalemate, Matt discovered more eyes in the tree just behind our food tree - the cub or cubs, the branches were too thick for us to be sure if it was one or two. We had inadvertently treed her cubs, about the most dangerous thing you can do with bears in the Sierras. We quickly backed away and turned off our lights, and we could hear the cub or cubs come down the tree. When were turned our lights back on, the eyes were gone. Later in the night, we heard the scratching again, but this time it was the cinamon bear from the night before (or so we think). We scared him away easily, and he never came back. Come morning our bags were still there. We had successfully saved the bears from our garbage.

The last morning was bittersweet. Mostly, we looked forward to a shower; we didn't have any of the sorts of food cravings we expected (we had made a pact not to talk about pizza along the trip, although we weren't very good about sticking to it). All in all, we weren't ready for the trip to be over and to face real life again. We took our time hiking down the canyon, at least at first, and still saw new wonders along the way, including the tiniest of fawns grazing on the banks of the river with its mother. Towards the end, we picked up the pace but stopped for a swim where the trail crosses the Tuolomne River. The picture of us at this spot shows us looking clean (relatively so) and relaxed and considerably leaner than we did at the start. In fact, Matt lost 18 pounds and Susan 10, although most of it didn't last for long. Towards the end of the trip, we could have eaten much more food than we had with us; at the beginning, we had trouble choking it down; in the middle, the food was just about right.

When we made it to the parking lot, our car was there, just as it was supposed to be, with a note from Maria and the girls that they'd be back in a minute. Being there, with the car, standing on pavement, was both strangely strange and strangely normal. One of the things the trip left us with was a feeling that each day just moves along and brings us along with it - a sort of inevitability that isn't worth worrying about or fighting against. Getting in the car and driving back to Susan's Mom's house in Palo Alto was just what came next this day. The drive through Yosemite sustained us for awhile, but as we dropped out of the mountains, we couldn't help feeling melancholy. We watched the mileage to see when we would reach 200 miles - the distance we had just finished walking - and it wasn't until we hit Union City, in the East Bay, almost all the way home.